Notwithstanding the exuberance of Israelis at the jubilant 70th Independence Day celebrations, justified in light of Israel’s extraordinary achievements and progress on both the diplomatic and defense fronts, the Jewish state will be facing major challenges over the next few months.
Until recently, largely due to the effective diplomacy of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel was in an ideal situation, receiving the support of the Trump administration as well as enjoying a unique relationship with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin. This, despite Putin’s determination to retain influence in Syria and his wish not to breach his cordial relations with the Iranians who, for their own reasons, have played a key role in assisting him to save Syrian President Bashar Assad from oblivion. However, this has encouraged the Iranians to overtly create military bases in Syria while shamelessly and repeatedly proclaiming their determination to wipe Israel off the map, which Israel regards as serious, potentially existential threats.
Until now, frequent consultations between Israel and Russia have served to avoid conflicts. Israel refrained from engaging in activities intended to bring about regime change or threaten Russia’s regional interests. In turn, the Russians did not react to Israel’s repeated bombing incursions in Syria to neutralize arms shipments to Hezbollah or prevent the Iranians from advancing toward its northern borders.
Unfortunately, Israel is now finding it extremely difficult to maintain these delicate balances.
Assad’s employment of chemical weapons against his own citizens has outraged the international community which, until only recently, had been passive while hundreds of innocent civilians were butchered weekly by Assad’s forces.
U.S. President Donald Trump, who, to Israel’s dismay, had announced his intention to withdraw all American troops from Syria, then reversed his decision and succeeded in persuading the French and British to join him in a joint military intervention to punish the Syrians. It was a strictly limited operation in which four major installations were destroyed with minimal casualties because the Syrians were made aware of the potential targets and evacuated them in advance. It was not an attempt to achieve regime change. But even this limited operation contrasted starkly with former President Barack Obama’s cowardly failure to follow up previous threats when the Syrians engaged in chemical warfare.
However, the tension between Israel and the Iranians has escalated. The Iranians have been employing Lebanese and Palestinian surrogates to carry out their terror activity and in February, in what was their first direct attack on Israel, the Iranians dispatched a drone from one of their Syrian air bases carrying explosives intended to devastate a location in Israel. It was shot down by an Israeli Apache helicopter.
Israel made it clear that Iranian bases in Syria were unacceptable and launched a retaliatory raid, targeting the major T4 air base in central Syria and in which an F-16 fighter jet was lost. In a second wave of strikes, Israel destroyed a significant percentage of Syria’s air defenses, which also incurred Iranian casualties. Although no Russians were injured, the Putin government criticized Israel for this foray.
Following the Syrian chemical attack on April 9, Israel was alleged to have launched additional long-range surface-to-air missiles, which were said to have destroyed the Iranian control center and killed 14, including seven Iranians, one of whom headed the drone unit. The Russians protested and the Iranians swore to retaliate.
Against the backdrop of these tensions on the Syrian front, early this month Hamas initiated a campaign in which it enlisted thousands of Gaza residents to breach the Israeli border. Hamas gunmen and fighters hurling Molotov cocktails were interspersed with the civilian demonstrators. The IDF took defensive action, using live gunfire where necessary against those using assault weapons or trying to penetrate the borders. Thousands were injured and dozens, primarily identifiable Hamas terrorists, were killed.
Despite photographic documentation of the violence, the employment of human shields including women and children, and the repeated statements by Hamas leaders that the objective was to bring back the refugees and destroy Israel, the U.N. Security Council sought to condemn Israel for responding “disproportionately.” The resolution was vetoed by the U.S.
The atmosphere throughout the region is extremely tense and Israel is girding itself for the possibility that war could erupt at any time on any front.
We are fortunate that Netanyahu heads the nation at this crucial time.. But he is treading on eggshells as he faces three challenges:
1) Preparing to engage in war, if necessary, to prevent the Iranians from setting up bases in Syria that threaten Israel.
2) Confronting any attempt by Hamas to breach Gaza’s borders, which will require tough military responses while seeking to limit the casualties – sought by Hamas to present themselves as victims and encourage international pressure on Israel to make concessions undermining its security.
3) Employing his diplomatic talents both to maintain the alliance with Trump and retain the fragile relationship with Putin, currently under great strain in light of Russian activity in Syria.
To deal with these challenges and avoid being dragged into the heightened conflicts between the Americans and the Russians is an extremely tough balancing act. Despite Russian reprimands and even warnings that it intends to provide the Syrians with more sophisticated air defenses, as of now, Israel’s lines of communication with the Kremlin are still open, albeit tense and fragile. Efforts are being made to retain maximum coordination, but Netanyahu must exert all his diplomatic skills to achieve this.
Even though Israel is stronger and more independent than ever before, there are clear storm clouds on the horizon. Keeping 1973 in mind, we should never allow ourselves to be overconfident.
If the Iranians respond disproportionately, war could erupt at any time. They may be waiting to see if the Americans cancel the nuclear deal before launching a full military confrontation. Likewise, if Hamas intensifies its efforts, it will lead to an intensified armed escalation. In either case, Hezbollah is likely to become engaged and Israel would be obliged to decimate its bases in Lebanon.
This makes Israel’s alliance with the U.S. critical. So far, the Americans have delivered, but Trump’s apparent determination to withdraw all American troops from Syria would be an enormous inducement to the Iranians to confront Israel.
In this context, we would need to rely on the Russians to restrain the Iranians and Hezbollah from their openly stated objective of decimating Israel. Could Netanyahu persuade the hitherto philo-Semitic Putin not to breach the uniquely good relationship with Israel and the Jews in the face of Russia’s conflicting interests and the undermining of his military aspirations in the region?
Clearly none of the parties at this stage seek an all-out conflict but it would only take a few sparks to unleash a regional conflagration.
The IDF is geared up for such an eventuality and with the Saudis and moderate Sunnis uninvolved or even possibly supporting Israel, it is confident it could overcome the combined forces of its potential enemies.
But the extent of casualties – especially on the home front – would be heavily influenced by the role that the U.S. and Russia would assume under such circumstances.
It is here that Netanyahu may face unprecedented obstacles in directing military conflicts and engaging simultaneously in diplomacy at the highest levels. Critics and supporters alike cannot conceive of any other leader at this stage possessing similar capabilities, experience and the extraordinary diplomatic skills needed to navigate the delicate balance.
Netanyahu must be allowed to focus all his energies on the crucial defense of the nation and not be obliged to spend at least half his time with defense lawyers and the constant bombardment by politicians and the media seeking to undermine him and forcing his resignation.
It is nothing short of criminal for the establishment to tolerate a situation whereby, in such critical times, it has created conditions for the nation to be led by a part-time prime minister who also acts as part-time foreign minister.
If there is no one who could currently lead the nation like Netanyahu, his critics should suspend their legal and political campaigns and at least unite temporarily behind him until the immediate threats confronting us have been overcome.
This column was originally published in the Jerusalem Post and Israel Hayom